IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 7 > Poitiers - Bordeaux

Poitiers - Bordeaux

It was tempting to stay put for another night at the hostel in Poitiers, with its low prices and friendly staff, but I held a ticket for what could prove to be the only train going south in days, and I had no more time to waste in my haste to reach San Sebastián. Oversleeping after the late night and the beers, I missed breakfast and left in a rush to catch the bus.

I needn't have panicked. Upon arriving at the station I found that the train I was aiming to board had been cancelled, and the only remaining option was to wait two hours and hope that the sole service scribbled on the board for Bordeaux would materialize. There was no mention, however, of any connecting train to take me on to Biarritz, which was the ultimate destination on my original ticket, and where I had hoped to stay at the end of the night. This could cause further complications, for I was due to meet my friends by the following day at the latest, and if I was stranded in Biarritz I could reasonably ask one of them to drive their magic Renault 4 along and pick me up, but all the way to Bordeaux was out of the question.

Aside from eating and spilling the contents of a huge baguette, my other occupation was now to try and book a place at the independent youth hostel in Bordeaux. The fiddly pre-pay phone account that I had set up prior to travelling was giving me grief, and it took half an hour to finally connect, whereupon a rather stuffy woman listened to my requests for a reservation but failed to ever give a definitive answer as to whether there was space for me or not. Since my attempts to make a call through my account had all failed, I had reverted to finding a phone which took coins, and my money ran out before I had gained any useful information at all. This was the last thing which one needed when travelling. A straight yes or no was all that was required, but rarely would it be received.

I returned to the station and paced the concourse feeling a degree of anxiety, an emotion I could see reflected upon the faces of a hundred others around me. Would a train turn up at all, and if so, would it take me anywhere useful? When I got to its destination would I be able to find accommodation, or should I have just stayed another night in Poitiers where I knew I'd be welcome again at the hostel? Ultimately, did I stand a chance of reaching my Spanish friends in time, or would that particular element of my adventure become a disastrous non-event?

Eventually the substitute train arrived, and I had to settle for the last and worst seat on it, since my reservation was for the original train and was now invalid. I had done well to even find a seat, as a whole morning's worth of other lost passengers had decided to board this service as well, presumably for the same reason that going anywhere seemed to be a better option than going nowhere.

The scenery through western France was largely flat and uninspiring, aside from the momentary glimpse of Angoulême with its spires and old town character. I had read mixed reports about Bordeaux, but whether it proved to be magnificent regional cultural capital or grim industrial heap, it was somewhere that I hadn't planned to be, and nothing was going to lift my slightly gloomy mood. The train reached its destination and I stepped into the large and unbearably hot station. The weather was becoming warmer day by day, and the air conditioning on the train had temporarily removed me from the heat, but the box-shaped concourse at Bordeaux was like a microwave oven and I exited quickly, should metallic objects in my bag suddenly burst into flames.

First impressions of the city were not particularly gratifying, with the area around the station suffering that same fate of so many cities and being host to various dodgy establishments, ranging from seedy saunas and massage parlours to take-aways that people wouldn't even take their dog to on its birthday. And it was the first French city to suffer from the dog turd obstacle course which must be undertaken when walking the pavements. Most noticeable though were the huge mounds of rubbish piled up around every corner, the stench of which wafted through the streets and was cooked in the afternoon sun. Whether this was another result of the strikes I wasn't sure, but it didn't look like a dustcart had entered the town for weeks. However, the hostel seemed an impressive enough place, being modern, conveniently located and well furnished, but I was soon to discover something revolting which lurked inside.

The man staffing the reception desk had an attitude which wasn't just a problem, but a health hazard. He had a persona that was a cross between a shady antiques dealer and a bitter seafarer, and a temper which was as rotten as the stacks of rubbish in the streets outside. Unwilling to accept either my French or English as a suitable language with which to discuss matters, he became violently grumpy at anything I dared mutter. I had only been able to grab his attention after I stood in front of him for four minutes, but now that I had it I rather wished I had stood around for forty minutes more and converted him to Buddhism. Each question was met with a furious response, and he issued me with the keys to my room which turned out to be the wrong set. When I reappeared back at the desk he threw the correct ones at me, and I escaped to the dormitory, my first task being to pull out my dictionary and find the French words for grumpy and arse. Unsurprisingly, arse wasn't in there.

I was sharing my room with another English guy, a pleasant enough chap whose only fault was to talk for twenty minutes between each pause. At these brief opportunities I would try to interject, only to be interrupted and subjected to a further chapter from his book of adventures. I had to leave and find somewhere else to go, deciding that navigating the maze of canine droppings on the street was a more preferable pastime.

I wandered towards the city centre, which was a bit of a mess with new tram lines being laid all over. I didn't get to see very much before I found one of my favourite haunts, a supermarket. Stocked up on more munchies, and some peculiar bottles of beer mixed with whisky, I returned to the hostel to do some laundry, the first occasion that this drudge had been necessary during my travels. Something which had struck me was the general politeness of French society. Wherever I went I was greeted by people in a way unfamiliar in Britain. Even in the laundrette, young men and teenagers would say hello and goodbye upon entering and leaving, sometimes expanding into other conversation. It was a practice all too forgotten in urban England, where people were too busy, snobby or moody to pay attention to anybody else.

There was of course one clear exception to this French pleasantry, somebody whose attitude was rather more akin to rabid peasantry. Mr Grumps was the talking point of many of the hostel residents who had suffered at his hands, and his mouth. In what was otherwise a very good hostel he was a bad apple spreading his sour scent around the place. It astonished me that if he bore such a grudge towards guests, he should work in such a position at all dealing with the public. Perhaps he would have served the community better to drive a dustcart and clean the place up a bit. His one redeeming feature was to provide hostellers with a little entertainment, which was something sadly lacking this evening - a badly dubbed film being the only offering to residents in the lounge. It was another of those occasions when the novel I was carrying had to suffice in stimulating my brain, but the murky, humid heat of the night rendered my muscles dormant, and before I knew it I was deep asleep.

HOSTEL REPORT: Bordeaux (non-HI) - Auberge de Jeunesse, 22 Cours Barbey, Bordeaux (Gironde)
Well positioned between the rail station and the city centre, this independent hostel was clean, modern and spacious. It was equipped with a lounge, kitchen and a small balcony at the rear, which was ideal for relaxing on a summer evening. Washbasins, showers and toilets were a little cramped and all external to my dormitory, but the building was attractive and functional. Clearly, the resentful man at reception ruined the experience somewhat, but it would be no surprise if his presence was not long-lasting. There were amenities and places to visit not far away, with a separate laundrette located around the corner. Breakfast was fair and the price per night was average for a French city. Score: 7/10

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